Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lessons From Zeph

Three things always populated my mind in regards to my father when I was a young boy. Foremost was his scent. Not surprising, as experts in the matter say smells are key in creating memories.  I spent a lot of time in my younger years in a small rural town called Forest, MS. Most of the men I knew, uncles, older cousins, and gentlemen my mother dated, all had these rougher edges to them. Most wore dirty overalls or oil stained coveralls or blue jeans with tattered work boots. They'd spent time riding horses, hunting animals, fixing cars, tending to farms, working in lumber mills, or chicken plants. All had these hard and callused hands, worn faces and reddened eyes. These men clearly did a lot of hard physical labor in their day-to-day lives. Whenever I'd embrace these men for hugs, they often smelled of sweat, or motor oil, or wood, or animals, or Budweiser. It wasn't sourness from bad body odor, but something different. My father though, he never smelled like this.

My father always smelled like Zest soap and fancy colognes with names I didn't know how to pronounce. He wore shirts with smooth fabric, shoes made of fine and shiny leather, and tasteful gold jewelry. (I assure you, despite how it sounds, my father DID NOT dress like a pimp.)  His hands and skin were smooth and clean, yet his grip was stronger than any man I knew.  My father was a thoughtful dresser, and before I, or even he, realized it, this was the first thing he'd ever teach me. Without knowing or trying, he taught me to care about one's presentation to the world. More importantly, his scent taught me the juxtaposition of men.

The second thing I thought about was my father's height. Like every other person in my life, as a young kid I had to physically look up to meet my father's eyes. But even still I knew he had to be considered a tall man in the general sense. Around all my uncles, cousins, and aunts, my father physically towered over them as well. The thing that really made me obsess with my father's height were these delusions that one day I'd be as tall as he was. I knew my father loved basketball, so most of my fantasies involved growing up and being tall enough to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, my father's favorite basketball team. Or at least be as tall as my older brother "Lil Zeph", who seemed, in my mind, to be my father's favorite. Along with the advantage of living in Flint, and seeing our father more often, I assumed being an outstanding basketball player is what cemented Zeph's (my older brother) status as the favorite son. It was because of this I wanted to be tall more than I wanted to be anything else in the world. I'm 5'10"... on a good day. These words can't express the bitterness I felt typing them.

Lastly, I always "missed" my father growing up. That was the thing I thought of the most. How much I missed him. I had barely stepped into consciousness when my mother left my father. I don't say they "split up" because that wouldn't be fair to my mother. She did in fact leave him. Under the ruse of a promised trip to McDonald's was how she got me to be okay with getting in the car. We did go to McDonald's... it just so happened to be all the way in Mississippi. Later my younger brother was born and we'd spend summers in Flint. I remember spending time with my Aunt Estell or with her neighbors a few doors away who were like surrogate parents, Fonzo and Cat, or my father's mother who also lived further down the same street. My father would come and pick us up from one of these places, and I can't recall what we'd always do, but I do remember feeling that however much time it was I'd spend with him, it never felt like it was enough. I spent more time missing my father than time actually spent with my father.

In my father's defense, living almost 1,000 miles apart didn't make it easy on him. That also meant for a long time, I didn't really know my father. A large part of the image of my father was being shaped by my mother who rightly didn't always have the kindest words about him. I also got scattered opinions from aunts, uncles, and cousins. The basic consensus was my father was a "ladies man" and from what I could surmise it was true. I didn't know how babies were made at the time, but I knew you had to make a woman "like you" to get a baby. I knew I had brothers and sisters, via my father from different mothers than my own, so I knew my father didn't have a problem getting women to "like him."

Not hard to see why as youthful photos of my father reveal an almost implausibly handsome young man, almost always with a beautiful woman on his arm. Watching my father interact with people, I learned to understand what women liked about him. He was an incredibly charming man that could talk with anyone. That charm coupled with his good looks probably got my father into a lot more trouble than he bargained for. He's a man and a man will typically be as faithful as the options available to him. "I didn't care what he did, to be honest," my mother once confessed, "I just couldn't get his ass to at least come home." More than anything, she'd always described my father as selfish.

Today, the man my mother lamented isn't the man my father is, or has been for several years. The "Zeph", she fell in love with all those years ago has been replaced with someone far more patient and thoughtful. The jealous, quick tempered, selfish, single-minded "ladies man" that was described to me, isn't the man I know today. The man I know today is a man who's insight and knowledge on all things in life I've learned to lean on. I often joke that my father has lived long enough to see so many things and frankly, make so many mistakes, he has the "cheat codes to life." A lot of the pitfalls I'd surely sink into, were I left to my own devices, he easily helps me navigate.

My father taught me that if shit gets heavy enough, it's okay to cry. "You're a human son, and as such, you have feelings and emotions. Despite what the world will tell you, those things aren't exclusive to women." My father taught me to always be respectful of others. "Trust people and hold them accountable by their actions and their character, be forgiving but don't be stupid." He taught me to be mindful of the fact that every story has two sides, to always listen to both, and to be fair. Even at the risk of not being on my side, my father is always fair. "Son, I'd be doing you a disservice as a father if I didn't tell you the truth", is a line I regularly hear when he's delivering advice opposite of what I was hoping to get. More than anything, he taught me that life isn't about the good times. Primarily life is a test of how we handle the bad times. "Any jackass can sail a ship in calm waters, but I want you to learn how to stay calm and steer your way through storms." 

When I was about 15, I was getting ready for what was going to be my first date-date. I was living with my father at the time, and I came to him seeking advice. He helped me pick out an outfit, let me use some of his cologne and taught where to apply it, (which I forgot and my brother Zeph would later reteach me) give me a few bucks, and give me some "pointers". "Be yourself son. It's enough, trust me." In short, the date was a total disaster. I came home dejected and upset. My father asked how it went and I explained the gory details. My father sighed, shook his head, and agreed that I fucked it up. "Paris, you aren't going to have trouble with women. You're my son and you got "it". Your brother Zeph has "it", you just haven't learned to tap into it yet. And "it" will be helpful with life in general, not just with women. Trust me son, you'll be fine." He was right. 

Besides that "infamous Jones Charm", throughout the years my father passed something more valuable than all the other things he's taught me; the lesson of evolution. Any real and healthy human should evolve into someone better. The man I am at 21, shouldn't be the man I am at 30, and he shouldn't be the man I am at 60. Self-admitted, my father didn't really change for a very long time, but my father's slower evolution came right as I needed it. Since I've been 18, coincidentally when I became a father myself, the counsel and comfort my father has given me has been worth more than anything material he could have given me as a child. If I were to compare my life to the game of basketball, my father wasn't Michael Jordan or LeBron James. For me, Zephniah Jones Jr. has proven to be more like Robert Horry. Someone that may not have been doing much in the first three quarters, but when crunch time comes around, he was always someone you'd want on your team because he's hitting a game winning three pointer. And remember, Robert Horry has more championship rings than Jordan, and in the end, isn't that what matters the most?

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Cause and Effect: America's Inevitable Response To Barack Obama and Racial Equality

This night in 2008 sealed America's fate in 2016.
"And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can", Barack Obama exclaimed as a crowd of over 240,000 in Lincoln Park erupted in cheers. When the former Senator and then, President-Elected ended his victory speech after the 2008 Presidential Election my face was wet with tears and a sense of civic pride swelled inside of me, the likes of which I never before and have not sense felt. Four years earlier, when I lived in Chicago, a stone's throw from the same park President Obama would deliver those words, the first vote I would ever cast would be for Obama's senate race versus Alan Keyes. Later to witness that same man soar to such unseen and unprecedented heights was beyond awe inspiring, it was beyond basic comprehension. I'd liken the experience to a blind man being granted sight for the first time, would the comparison not be met with charges of gross hyperbole.

There's a potpourri of subjects in this world I find endlessly fascinating. Sports, politics, film and television, to name a few, but nothing arouses my intellectual senses quite like American History. Look no further than the birth of this nation to find an inconceivable meteoric rise to power that is singularly unrivaled in human history. In only 240 relatively short years, the United States of America clawed it's way from being a handful of backwater rebellious English colonies to becoming the premier place of commerce, technology, medicine, education, and entertainment arts in all of the world. It's history is made even more complicated in that America has had all of those aforementioned triumphs, while simultaneously perpetrating the world's most grotesque form of injustice, slavery, then engaging in over one hundred years of state sponsored overt and latent racial supremacy. I've long held the belief that Thomas Jefferson writing the words, "All Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness" WHILE OWNING SLAVES, is, and will be in perpetuity, the planet's primary example of irony.

We don't live in a world where there's this clear, inconvertible evidence of systemic racism. There's no segregated lunch counters to sit at anymore. No stores or buses to boycott. No more Bull Connors or George Wallaces to point to as clear oppressors. The men and women two generations before my own won those battles and when the battle-lines were THAT clear it's easy to see how once those fights were over, one could assume the war was over. As we as a nation have evolved, so has racism. Where pre-Civil Rights racism was Godzilla; this prodigious force that lumbers toward ALL men, crushing anything in it's wake with such obvious force, that even the blind can't deny it's presence, post-Civil Rights racism is more akin to Predator. An equally duplicitous threat that clandestinely maneuvers through an environment now eradicating ONLY it's intended targets and doing so with staggering efficiency. I apologize in advance for the following tautology, but it has to be said again. No one in a Godzilla film could reasonably say he didn't exist, so the collective fight against Godzilla is a lot easier to mount when you don't have to spend time arguing his existence. By contrast, people in Predator films met their end in part because they're too busy questioning Predator's very presence.
Scenes like this pepper America's past.

I tell you all that not to lecture you on America's sins but to prove that despite these missteps, the spirit of the ideals and principles of this country's founding have endured. America itself has endured because our nation is a nation of fighters. It's in our very nature to fight the powers that govern us, but it's also our inherent righteous nature that pulls us forward. Albeit kicking and screaming sometimes, but forward nevertheless. The bedrock foundation of America's core founding ideals are so unflappable, that if you were only to look at the basic essence of the words of our Constitution, and use them as a guide, you'll always find yourself on the right side of any problem. It's chief message is one that calls for common sense, reason, fairness, and freedom that no rational man can reasonably dispute. The problem is those beautiful yet, quixotic words have to be implemented by men, whom we all know are seldom powered by the virtues of our founding documents. Too often men can be governed by less noble traits like greed, envy, hate, and fear. Even with all its rough edges, I still love and admire this country and its history.

One can not love the history of this nation without a certain "love" for the men that have led it. To love America is ipso facto a love of Presidents. Since this country's founding, these puissant men have guided and shaped, not just this nation's history, but the world's history like few other men can or have. I can name them all in succession, tell you the length of each man's term of office, and even offer up inutile facts about each. Knowing what I've know of our history and that office, I believe that I'd sooner live to see my beloved Chicago Cubs win a World Series before witnessing a Black man hold the Presidency. So I naively thought that just the moment itself, living to see this nation, via the freewill of a majority of it's own free citizens, elect a Black man to it's highest office, would be something worth collectively celebrating.

I already mention that the days of "Godzilla" racism are gone so that meant there aren't too many great moments of racial "firsts" to cross. Almost every major entity in this nation has christened itself with the champagne of racial equality. Sports leagues, schools, judges chambers, every field of employment, art, entertainment, all have had someone break through. Yes, many of our greatest Civil Rights heroes are dead and gone but there are still people in our country who can say they saw many of these moments. I had become reluctantly resigned to the fact that my generation's social defining "where were you when" moment was destined to be September 11th. Needless to say, it wasn't a story I would tell with pride to my as of yet born grandchildren. In my mind, November 5th, 2008 had given us "millennials" the a ultimate reprieve. We are a country fueled by the dream and broken promise of equality but built and run on the actions of racial hierarchy. You, reading this, and I, typing this, got to see our country show itself and the world, unequivocally, that that dream and that promise weren't just words anymore. It was real.

Even if this NEVER happened again, even if President Obama had lost his re-election bid in 2012, or worse, he had been struck down that night in Lincoln Park, WE had lived to see the country actually elect him. In my learnt opinion, there is no more enviable moment of American history to have been alive to witness. And yet, why has this nation not overwhelmingly saw the moment as I had? Does my Democratic political leaning, knowledge of history, or my shared race with our President offer me some idiosyncratic viewpoint other people aren't able to see? Upon further examination, it should have been my comprehensive knowledge of our nation's history that guided me to see the rise of the tyrannical right and Donald Trump. Donald isn't doing anything special. He hasn't tapped into some unseen racism that America was waiting to unleash. He hasn't given voice to some "silent majority". Trump is simply put, America's logical and appropriate response to racial equality.

 I was often confused as to how or why President Obama hasn't enjoyed the long established norms and respects that the office in which he holds typically grants someone in his place. Why he's endured historic levels of Congressional pushback. It's safe to say we're all aware of Newton's third law, which states, "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction." Given that, and the history of America, I should have known that for every moment of cataclysmic racial equality, there has always been equal backlash. For slavery to meet its end, our country would wage its bloodiest war. A war within its own boarders, among its own citizens. A sweeping change in the voting habits for the country's southern population was the casualty for civil rights being embraced by the Democratic party in the 1960s. The end of Jim Crow/segregation saw the drug war and mass incarceration as it's logical response. Only with hindsight, is it easy to see how fool-hearted I'd been in thinking anything than other the complete opposite of everything that is Barack Obama, Donald Trump, would emerge from the crater of Obama's historical Presidency created in this country's psyche.
The face of America's logical reply to an Obama Presidency.
Where President Obama was born and raised in the most modest of means, Donald was born to superfluous wealth and prominence. Where President Obama is a tireless intellect, Donald is a lethargic imbecile. Where President Obama is exceedingly humble, Donald is endlessly egotistical. Where President Obama is consciously articulate, Donald speaks in the rambling self-interrupting cadence of your over inebriated uncle. Where President Obama is measured, reasonable, and Spock-esque in regards to logic, Donald is thoughtless, capricious, and seemingly unhinged from reality at times. Where President Obama's professional achievements reach the heights of Nobel Laureate, one could argue that Donald's professional ascension is WWE Hall of Famer.

I honestly believe if I were bestowed the all-reaching and divine powers of God Himself, I couldn't create a more fitting evil doppelganger for Barack Obama than Donald Trump. It doesn't seem real when I think about it but somehow, it seems so perfect. It's not all consternation in this perceived lost cause.

Last week, former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali passed away. From the universal and unanimous outpouring of love and respect Ali garnered you'd think he was always loved by America. I don't think I need to tell you that initially, the braggadocious, loud mouth, draft dodging, handsome, Muslim African-American heavyweight champion of the world didn't go over too well in 1960s America. But history looks kindly at Ali and his stance. Before his death, one could argue that Ali was the world's most beloved sports figure. Only through revisionist history can we all see the just nature of Muhammad Ali's words and actions.

I believe that one day, this inevitable rise of Donald, will become, like slavery and segregation before it, will be but mere battle scars of our country's unique history. That Donald and this shit-show that has become the 2016 election will fade from memory and President Obama will be seen with the rose color glasses history often uses to gaze onto others. Because trust me, one day, and you may not know or believe it yet, I believe near majority of Americans will join me expressing pride to tell the people of tomorrow they lived to see Barack Obama.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Black Swagger Extinguished

When I was a little boy around 10 years old, I remember Mike Tyson knocking out Frank Bruno in the 3rd round of their heavyweight title fight. The pure power on display on March 16th, 1996 seemed to sear the sport into my permanent conscience. I don't remember much about the fight, but I do remember Bruno being totally out matched. My memory seems to tell me that Bruno was beat before the fight even started. (As I got older, I learned that that was what Tyson was best at.) Now at the time, I didn't know much about boxing, but I knew two things about Mike Tyson; I knew he was a boxer, an exceptional one, and I knew, somehow, that Tyson was "tough."

It wasn't because I had this knowledge of the inherent "toughness" that being the world heavyweight champion "magically" endows it's holder with, but in my young mind, the name "Mike Tyson" somehow seemed to be synonymous with something fearful. Something not quite as sinister as hearing the name Lucifer invoked, but I knew "Mike Tyson" meant "rugged" or "hard". I knew rappers would use his name in their lyrics, likening themselves to Tyson's strength and prowess. That night in 1996, I thought I was watching the world's greatest boxer ever by the way my uncles and male older cousins were cheering and hollering. They used colorful language that I wasn't allowed and eagerly exchanged high-fives. I don't quite recall which uncle or older cousin that said it, but something to the effect of, "I'm telling you, Tyson's the baddest motherfucker ever to do it", was yelled out. And almost instantaneously it was rebutted by another family member who exclaimed, "Na, young blood. He good but he ain't Ali." (Later that year, I watched Ali light the Olympic flame in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. This was my first time seeing Ali live on television.)

Over the next twenty years of my life, a sort of obsession with the sport, more so an obsession with one of the sport's chief figures, Muhammad Ali, began. I have always said there is ONE reason, ONLY ONE, someone of my race should want to travel backwards in time. The opportunity, no, the PRIVILEGE of seeing Muhammad Ali fight in his prime. I've soaked up nearly every documentary, watched every dramatic retailing, read books, and articles chronicling the details of Ali's life and career. A few reading this will remember Ali signing a deal with the clothing line FUBU to be the new face of their "Platinum" line, after their "Fat Albert" collection ended. I'd save up from various jobs and use my earnings to buy shirts and jeans embossed with Ali's likeness and memorable quotes. From the moment I was old enough to truly comprehend the breath of his career, Ali has been without question or equal, my favorite athlete of all time. Mind you the man's last athletic endeavor took place over 5 years BEFORE I was ever born. One could reasonably argue that Ali's last great fight took place even earlier, in 1975. Ali's in-ring skill alone could warrant praise, but the fact that a young boy who had never and would never see him perform, could anoint Ali as his favorite athlete speaks to the sheer force of personality that was Muhammad Ali.

It wasn't his footwork, his hand speed, his punching accuracy, or his toughness as a fighter that endured with me. Rather his fearless and uncompromising persona. Ali's gift of tongue inexplicably surpassed even his enviable godlike skills in the ring. It was his confidence. His braggadocious nature during the time in which he spent the prime of his life that I've admired most. Spending time in Mississippi I have always been uniquely aware to this country's history as it relates to racism, so for me, one of the more fascinating aspects of Ali was that he survived. It continues to be bewildering just how the hell he made it out of 1960s America. Martin Luther King Jr didn't. Medgar Evers didn't. Even Ali's former mentor, Malcolm X was met with a violent end before the decade's end, but Ali survived.

In an age where it could literally be in one's best PHYSICAL interest to be quiet, Ali wasn't. Ali never wavered in his faith and his personal convictions. Ali risked prison, sacrificed years of his athletic prime, as well as untold millions, in protest of the Vietnam War. He spoke openly about the hypocrisy of America. While America was championing war abroad to "free" people from the "tyrannical rule of communism", it feverishly worked to deny basic civil rights for millions of African-Americans here at home. Ali's bravery standing up and speaking his mind, despite the personal cost, is only NOW universally admired. For awhile, I always wondered why we hadn't seen a derivative athlete to Ali. Beside Ali's luck of being born during the golden age of the sport and the heavyweight division, and working to become the best of those titans, I've come to understand that it was the unique circumstances of 1960s America itself, more than anything else, that helped cultivate Ali. No athlete is Ali, because no athlete needs to be Ali.

Gone are the overt racist obstacles that Ali had to navigate in his day-to-day life. The blatant systems of control and oppression pressing on the necks of millions of Blacks have long been eradicated. The death of that America meant the death of those athletes. Racism is a much more complex beast in 2016. Equally as adversarial as its predecessor, just more hidden. It couldn't be denied in the 1960s that something was twisted with this country's logic of democracy when it was granting rights to only its white citizens. Even your wealth and status as a rich and famous athlete couldn't shield you from the dangers you faced if your skin were a few shades too dark. In 2016, money can create this fraudulent cocoon of security that most athletes of color lean on. There's no personal stakes for you if you're a rich athlete. To speak out now would be to speak up for people that aren't you or your family. To speak out now would be speaking out against forces that you, yourself don't face. Where Ali faced an almost moral and social responsibility to speak out, it can seem like a bothersome inconvenience or option to do so today.

Ali wasn't perfect. No man is. He wasn't the most faithful husband nor was he winning any awards for his dedication to fatherhood. However to me, his greatest sin was the way he taunted and mocked his rival Joe Frazier. Frazier, rightfully so, was hurt, angered, and confused as to why Ali continuously leveled him with horrendous racial epithets. Often comparing Frazier to a gorilla, questioning Frazier's "Blackness", or worse of all, outright calling Frazier an "Uncle Tom".  That's a charge worthy of coming to physical blows in today's Black America, but in 1960s Black America, it was damn near worth killing it's accuser.
Those indiscretions not withstanding, the man lived an amazing life. The unanimous outpouring of respect and love for Ali goes to show the massive impact his life had not only in this country, but around the world. Ali has been this bright beacon of Black pride and confidence for young Blacks to look upon for over 50 years. While I was never lucky enough to meet him, I was smart enough to learn about him and get to know him as much as one could from a distance. I'm sadden that Parkinson's robbed THAT man of all the wonderful gifts that made him so special. His motor skills, his speech. It almost doesn't seem fair. But yet, I'm thankful that the world had him, because if man were to tell the story of boxing, of sports, of Black America or just America in general, you can't tell it without mentioning Muhammad Ali.